We found Grace sitting by herself, on a white plastic chair, wearing a hooded, cotton-knit sweater. We were inside a Ugandan transit camp, a few miles from the South Sudanese border, where nearly 4,000 refugees were awaiting resettlement.
The camp was cramped—having been built for half this number—and it was highly unusual to find anyone sitting alone, let alone a teenage girl. To start a conversation we asked her where she had come from.
“I am from Juba,” she said, the South Sudanese capital that is some 280 km away.
“We drove from there in June” we said.
“I walked from there in July” she said.
We asked if we could sit with her and, as there was only one chair, sat on the ground.
“Walked?” we continued, and quickly realizing the insensitivity of my question, tried to make up for it by using the local expression for the days spent walking and added “How many days footing was it?”
“Four days, five sleeps” she said, matter-of-factly, about a trek that might just slay the man who has come to rest at her feet.
“Where are your parents?” we asked, as it was the protocol to get permission to talk to minors.
“My mother is dead. And my father was killed too. I came here alone.”
Her English was crisp and her voice clear or at least it was until she spoke the word ‘alone.’
“When the fighting broke out I was in school. I ran home but found my mother was down, the soldiers had already been there. I ran to the shop where my father worked but when I got there the soldiers had already been there too. He was sitting in a seat, but he was dead. So I ran, I ran, and I ran.”
From Syria to Yemen to South Sudan, the media reporting of these mass atrocities are so focused on the massive wave of human displacement that the stories of the individual often get lost. After interviewing many people in these situations you can fool yourself that you are inured, that you are just documenting their story. But that is until you meet a girl like Grace: an articulate 17-year old that saw both of her murdered parents on the same day.
We first visited this camp in June following a family who were fleeing hunger. We returned two months later to see how they were doing under Uganda’s refugee resettlement program. But just days after we left South Sudan erupted into the latest chapter of its recurring civil war.
As government forces clashed with rebel groups, under-resourced foreign peacekeepers were overwhelmed and the innocent were caught in the crossfire. Within two months, some 300,000 people fled the young nation into the neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda.
At the nearby border crossing alone, approximately 100,000 people entered Uganda in a month. To put that into some sort of context: it is roughly as many refugees the United States accepts in an average year, Australia in a decade. Furthermore, Uganda already houses half a million refugees and has a per capita GDP of about 1/50th of either nation.
As Grace walked from Juba she joined up with other orphans in a sad and largely silent convoy, walking with only the clothes they had on when the shooting began.
Nights were spent sleeping on the bare ground, groups of girls and women clumping together for security. During the walk the girls found no food, and the only water was lapped from stagnant surface ponds.
Grace had poise like her name, but she was keen to move on from all questions of the past.
“To have a bright future,” she said, “I must finish school.” We learned that in the transit camp she could not continue her secondary education.
Uganda has arguably the most welcoming policies towards refugees of any nation in the world, but the flood of recent arrivals had clogged the system and left Grace stuck in this resource-stretched ‘transit’ camp for three months. Nonetheless, Uganda continues to accept refugees regardless of the reason for fleeing and immediately allows them to work, a privilege many countries never give. Refugees are also allocated a small plot of land, materials to build a basic shelter, basic food rations, seeds to grow vegetables and a case worker to help them transition to a new life.
Those who had arrived earlier are living just outside the transit center in an area that looked more like a village a refugee camp. While the resources there are modest, it became clear that for the displaced it was how they are treated that matters more than what they had.
Here there is a recognition that they should be treated as families, fellow Africans, and, as one man said, “as humans.”
Grace asked for our help. Though not for food or land, but to get back to school.
She had been stoic, shared openly, but our talking wore her down. When her tears did start, we watched one hang from her nose for the longest time, as if wanting to prove that Africans don’t cry.
But they do, and perhaps they should, because no girl of her age should see what she has seen.
Peter Holmes a Court and Alissa Everett travelled to South Sudan and Uganda with the help of UNICEF, Save the Children and ExposingHope.org. They met Grace while filming a story for 60 Minutes Australia that airs on March 19. To learn more about their work, visit www.ExposingHope.org